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The Influence of Anxiety: Kristen Wiig, SNL, and Self-Consciousness

May 25, 2012

Kristen Wiig Saturday Night Live SNLThe finale of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was also an occasion to say goodbye to one of its finest and funniest performers, Kristen Wiig, whom Lorne Michaels himself has ranked among the “top three or four” of all time on SNL. With an ever skeletal Mick Jagger crooning his own “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday,” the lengthy send-off allowed the cast members to share a short dance with Wiig as she became increasingly almost tearful, offering rare glimpse into the uncontrollable humanity of an actor who almost never breaks onscreen.

Of the many characters that Wiig has played over the last seven years at SNL, she excels at creating the kind of persona who is confident to the point of being absolutely unselfconscious — marginalized eccentrics who are either oblivious or immune to the idea of being judged. Her “Target Lady,” for example, simply cannot contain a sense of surprise and excitement for each product that comes through the register (“Dog collar… hope you have a dog! Wink.”),  to which she then offers a slice of her own inexplicable life. Or Shanna the “sexy coworker,” whose airy and absentminded eroticism at a Halloween party quickly devolves into a detailed story involving peanuts and digestion. Similarly, Wiig’s impression of Bjork is that of a unattenuated pixie who giggles at her own preciousness not out of irony or embarrassment, but because she is pleased with herself for being herself.

There is clearly something unsettling about these characters, but the humor here is not a result of their being outrageous and brazen so much as our awareness of their perceived lack; our laughter emerges nervously, diffusing a certain desire to teach them about self-consciousness. In other words, we become painfully aware of the gaze of the Other in us, as though to compensate for the seeming absence of inhibition and self-restraint in them. For many of us — post-meta subjects who can’t really have a thought without then thinking about that thought (and so on, en abyme) — the pure presence that these characters seem to embrace is like spinach in the teeth of the mind; inside, I am practically screaming to quietly take them aside and set them straight about being seen.

In his now-iconic essay on television and U.S fiction, David Foster Wallace suggested that the mark of a great actor is her ability to ignore the reality of the “truly huge crowd of ogling somebodies” who are looming just on the other side of the screen; actors are different from the rest of us by being “absolute geniuses at seeming unwatched.” What we find in Wiig’s work on SNL is not just an actor who has mastered her nonchalant relation to the camera, however, but rather a set of characters to whom we as viewers relate not by identification, but by acknowledging our own fear of not being self-critical or self-censoring in our own lives. In other words, these characters — by not being anxious about their interactions, by unapologetically being themselves — invite us to be anxious for them: don’t they know that everyone is watching?! To borrow the formulation of the Slovenian/Lacanian critic Renata Salecl:

Anxiety is also in a specific way linked to the desire of the Other — what provokes this anxiety is the fact that the desire of the other does not recognize me, and even if I  have the impression that the Other does recognize me, it will not recognize me sufficiently.

The idea of regulatory self-consciousness in light of an unseen Other is something with which we are faced in the Target Lady or Shanna (and even some of Wiig’s better impressions, like Suze Orman), and our laughter is a useful tool — maybe all we have — to avoid coming to terms with the impossible position of wanting to be seen ourselves while at the same time wondering what that looks like.  And hoping for the best.

On the other hand, Wiig is no less celebrated for SNL characters who are both pitifully self-conscious and strenuously over-compensatory. However skillfully she portrays the unfiltered openness of Target Lady and the rest, Wiig is never more brilliant than when her characters are uncomfortable and out of place. If she often relies on heavily affected voices like the ditzy whisper of Shanna or the Icelandic baby-talk of Bjork, Wiig’s self-conscious characters cope with their anxiety by creating something like a character for themselves — through which, of course, they seek to alleviate the prospect of being seen by adopting the persona of someone who is good at seeming unwatched. The memorable Penelope, for instance, is a compulsive fabricator of complex fictions that aim to outdo whatever anyone else says. When a frustrated fellow traffic student suggests that she is “a little nuts,” Penelope first counters that she is “big nuts,” followed by the wonderfully surreal claim that her house is in fact a macadamia nut with an almond for a front door. The impulse to not only be acknowledged by but actually impress the Other is thus rendered absurd by Wiig, as though affirming the impossibility of knowing what an always imaginary Other desires.

By all accounts (including her own), Wiig herself is consummately soft-spoken and shy. She first began acting in college, almost by accident, and remains someone for whom the spotlight is reserved only for the stage. As she recently told Alec Baldwin on Here’s the Thing:

I love performing but there’s such a big part of me that’s like, “Don’t look at me.” Do you know what I mean? It’s hard to find that balance. I think, also, that people assume if you’re an actor that you just walk into a room and you’re like, “Hellooo! Listen to this story. I want everyone to gather around.” [...] If I’m in a room full of people and someone says, “Hey, Kristen, what happened at that thing?” I’ll just be like, “Oh, ugh, ugh” and I’ll start sweating.

There’s something of an analogue to this admission in what is perhaps my favorite of Wiig’s characters: Judy Grimes, a skittish travel writer who has overestimated her capacity to appear in front of an audience. Sheer verbal acrobatics and the rapid rhythmic precision of her delivery notwithstanding, Wiig’s portrayal of Judy offers us a picture of the other side of the other side of the camera. Fully aware of being watched, Judy crafts a labyrinthine set of untruths, about which she is always ultimately “just kidding.” The fact that Judy frames her terrified top-speed rambling as an improvised series of jokes, however, is Wiig’s smartest commentary on the function of being funny: the ability able to pass off as a joke each of our unendingly failed attempts to anticipate what the Other will have wanted us to say.

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